Saturday, May 28, 2016

What's it like to be a writer, mother, reluctant rock star?

High Tide in Tucson is a collection of essays Barbara Kingsolver published before she published The Poisonwood Bible (1998) but after she had published three novels, a collection of short stories, a book of poetry, and a non-fiction account of women in the
Arizona mine strike of 1983. She was successful enough that (a) her publisher would even publish a book of her essays; (b) her publisher would commission spot art for each essay and use a second color on every page; and (c) send her off on a four-week book tour, "a different city each day" when she was promoting one of her novels.

It's an eclectic collection, travel pieces, observations about contemporary culture and parenting, and the writing life. We learn something about her background, her daughter, her divorce, her new husband. Not much because these are essays, not memoir. They are all wonderfully well-written, possibly better than the originals because she revised them extensively for this book.

While I read the essays in order, the way Kingsolver hoped, I responded most strongly to the ones about writing. For example: "Write a nonfiction book, and be prepared for the legion or readers who are going to doubt your facts. But write a novel, and get ready for the world to assume every word is true."

That's not always the case. I just looked at an Amazon one-star review of The Poisonwood Bible in which the reader complains that real rebels are bloodthirsty terrorists, migrations of army ants are not as portrayed, no missionary like the one in the novel every made it to the Congo. People, this is a novel. It's a lie. Kingsolver says, "Now I spend hours each day, year after year, a wicked smirk on my face, making up whopping, four-hundred-page lies." And getting paid for it.

She can be laugh-out-loud funny. She writes about her experience playing keyboard for the Rock Bottom Remainders, a pickup rock band that included Stephen King, Ridley Pearson, Dave Barry, Kathi Goldmark, Tad Bartimus, Amy Tan, Al Kooper, and Roy Blount. They all(?) had some musical background (Kingsolver started college on a music scholarship), but they did not pretend to be professional musicians. They toured to raise money for literacy. In Boston before their first concert, King had a breakthrough: and she told him "I thought he was sounding much better. His face lit up like a carnival ride, and he said, 'You know what I discovered? When I'm not sure what chord to play, I don't touch the guitar, I just do this—air strumming!'"

She has a delightful essay,"Careful What You Let in the Door," about reader mail, the good, the bad, and the ugly (and an essay written when reader mail was marks on paper). Example: "Dear Ms. Kingsolver, Enclosed is something I've written. I'd appreciate it if you could get Harper & Row to publish it. I suggest it be marketed as an Inspirational Essay." At the other extreme: "Dear Barbara, I just finished reading The Bean Trees for the fourth time since I bought it through a book club. Please, please, please write more books!"

What takes this essay to another level, however, is the letter questioning violence in books, movies, TV and (presumably) video games, violence as entertainment. It was followed by a letter from a nun who thanked Kingsolver for a novel "which says something hopeful abo9ut death and the life that can come from death." What is the artist's obligation in writing about hate, cruelty, bloodshed? Kingsolver writes, "I don't know whether my convictions about art—and particularly art that contains violence—will ever be allowed to settle into a comfortable position. They have been revising themselves for a long, long time . . . ."

High Tide in Tucson is entertaining, informative, and thought-provoking. What more can you ask?

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